The Great Depression is winding down, and fifteen-year-old Mary Alice Dowdel's parents are in dire financial straits. That's why she has no choice but to go and stay with her grandmother in small-town Illinois, a place that feels pretty far away from bustling Chicago. When she gets to the little town, Grandma Dowdel takes her directly to the school…no time for pleasantries.
There's a girl named Mildred in her class who immediately tries to hustle a dollar out of Mary Alice because she assumes that city girls are rich. She follows Mary Alice home, determined to get that money, and Grandma Dowdel helps a girl out. She releases Mildred's horse so that the girl has to walk five miles home in the dark. That's what bullies get when they mess with Mrs. Dowdel's granddaughter!
Sounds like this is going to be a long year.
Later on, when Halloween rolls around, gangs of teenage boys roam through town carrying out pranks that include blowing up privies and messing up porches. Instead of fretting over the shenanigans, Grandma Dowdel goes on the offensive. She lies in wait during the night with a trip line, and when the boys do show up, she attacks them—pouring a whole pan of homemade glue over one unfortunate troublemaker's head.
Grandma also decides to bake pies for the Halloween party, which means sneaking into their neighbors' backyards in the middle of the night and making away with cartfuls of pecans and pumpkins. When the party comes along, everyone is pleased to see the huge stack of pies that Grandma and Mary Alice have brought—because after all, they're pretty hungry.
Over Thanksgiving, Mary Alice accompanies Grandma Dowdel to a turkey shoot-out that's held in order to raise money to help Mrs. Abernathy care for her disabled son, who was injured in WWI.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, Mary Alice learns that she's been chosen to play the Virgin Mary in the school nativity play—much to the anger of the other girls, like the popular and pretty Carleen Lovejoy.
Mary Alice also starts going along with Grandma when she traps foxes in the middle of the night, and later learns that her grandmother does this so she can afford tickets for Mary Alice's brother, Joey, to visit—and for the two siblings to go home and spend some time with their parents over the holidays.
Getting to spend some quality time with family (and visit Chicago) helps to make the time go by a bit faster for Mary Alice. In fact, the next thing we know, it's February.
In February, Mrs. Weidenbach asks Grandma Dowdel to make cherry tarts for the George Washington's Birthday tea party and Grandma says yes…as long as the tea is held at her house. During the event, Mrs. Effie Wilcox—Grandma's best friend—comes over, and is delighted to find out that Mrs. Weidenbach is her long lost sister. Mrs. Weidenbach, on the other hand, is horrified.
Then an artist from New York City named Arnold Green comes to town looking for a place to board, and Grandma Dowdel immediately takes him in because he's willing to pay a pretty penny.
Mary Alice works up the nerve to ask the cute new boy at school—Royce McNabb—over one Sunday with the excuse that she needs extra tutoring in math. When the day comes, Mary Alice and Royce are interrupted by a bunch of screaming and banging upstairs…and then the postmistress, Maxine Patch, runs downstairs naked except for a large snake that's wrapped around her.
It turns out that Arnold Green was painting her in the nude, and the snake that lives in Grandma's attic fell onto her. After that, Royce leaves and Mary Alice is pretty sure he'll never want to talk to her again.
Then as the school year comes to a close, Mary Alice is at school one day and the tornado siren goes on. The other students rush to shelter, but Mary Alice runs all the way home because she wants to make sure that her grandmother is safe.
They ride out the tornado (along with Bootsie the cat and her kitten, April), and afterwards Grandma goes to check on some of the townspeople—including an awfully rude man named Old Man Nyquist who doesn't even thank her for saving him. She also checks on Effie Wilcox, whom she cares about even though they seem to get on each other's last nerves.
Graduation rolls around and Royce McNabb is going off to college at the University of Illinois, while Mary Alice still has another year of school to get through. At the all-school party, Royce asks Mary Alice if he can write to her when he's in college, and of course she says yes. (Swoon.)
Then she goes home and tells her grandmother that even though her parents have gotten a bigger apartment, she wants to stay here. But Grandma Dowdel can see that Mary Alice is just trying to take care of her, and so she sends her back to Chicago with April the kitten—and says that she can visit whenever she wants.
At the end of the book, the story fast-forwards a few years to WWII. Mary Alice is now living in Chicago and working as a journalist while her brother Joey is fighting in Europe. Her parents have moved to Seattle. The book reveals—without much warning—that Mary Alice is getting married to Royce.
When the time comes for her to marry Royce McNabb, the only family around is her Grandma Dowdel. They get married right there in Grandma Dowdel's house, and Mary Alice's grandmother gives her away in marriage.
It looks like all that letter-writing really did pay off.